One Year Of Jam

Home-made jam || by marion

Wild blueberries || by marion

Raspberry and blueberry jam || by marion

Raspberry bushes || by marion

Wild blueberry and raspberry jam || by marion

Wild blueberries in the forest || by marion

Blueberry, raspberry & plum crisp || by marion

Blueberry picking forest view || by marion

Little jars, big milestone!
Last August, I made jam. August is there again: here in the north of Sweden, raspberries and wild blueberries are ripe and delicious. There’s still a jar of jam left from last year, and now I’m making more. Full circle!

On this journey to growing & foraging more of my own food,  the most important lesson I’m constantly learning is to lower my expectations and set reasonable goals.

Making one year’s worth of jam was my goal for last year. It was reasonable: raspberry bushes grow on their own in our garden, requiring zero maintenance except one yearly trimming. As for blueberries, well, the forest all around is full of them.

We’re celebrating the new berry season with Natalie’s fruit oatmeal crisp. Let me tell you, it’s delicious. After investing in a berry-picker comb, we set a new reasonable goal for this year: make another year’s worth of jam, plus freeze some fresh berries to enjoy next winter.

This is nothing like self-sufficiency, but there’s something so deeply satisfying about seeing those jars pile up. Not too little, not too much, just what we need plus some to give as gifts. Growing our own food, one little step at a time.

My super simple wild blueberry/raspberry jam

  • Servings: about 3 jars
  • Print

This is how I make my summer berries jam. I don’t even use any special jam sugar or additional pectin, but usually it sets just fine. I reuse peanut butter jars (such as pictured above) I save all year long. While I cook the jam, I sterilize the jars by putting them in the oven at 100°C for about 20 minutes.

Ingredients

  • 800 g crystal sugar (I use organic white sugar)
  • 1 kg fresh berries
  • 1 squeeze of lemon juice

Directions

Mix all ingredients in a large pot. While stirring, bring to a boil, boil until a foam forms, rises on the sides of the pot and falls again. Reduce the heat and boil for a 5-10 more minutes while stirring. Pour still hot into sterilized jars. Close the jars and put them upside down to cool. The jam will seem liquid but will set as it cools.

 


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Frugal Wintertime Habits: This Year’s Progress

wintertime-bymarion-text

With spring coming next week, I thought it would be nice to recap all the frugal wintertime habits we put into practice this year. Most of them were inspired by other bloggers I have been reading these past few years, for example here, here, here or here. Even though I don’t believe that individual actions alone can change the world (I think we need some serious thinking, political debate and action too), I have found it very useful and inspiring to read about other people’s progress toward a greener and simpler life. It has helped me realize there were many changes I could make in my everyday life that would benefit both planet and people. Last year, inspired by zero waste ideas, I stopped buying tea bags and started using handkerchiefs instead of paper tissues. It wasn’t difficult, it was a change of perspective. And it saved me some money, too. For me personally, every new penny-saving habit is precious because it gives me time I can spend away from a job that made me unhappy, building something I find more meaningful instead. Here’s the progress we made this winter to save even more energy, labor, and money:

We’ve stopped buying canned beans and peas. We cook dried ones instead. We found that it’s not so time-consuming if you’re well organized: we make a big batch every two weeks or so. We soak them overnight, cook them on the wood stove (which is also our main heating source), and freeze then in small glass jars. It’s very quick to thaw them as we need them by filling the jar with boiling water. This way we have plenty of balanced, delicious and quickly prepared vegetarian meals. Whenever we run out of homemade houmous, for example, we grab a jar of chickpeas in the freezer and make some more. We also save the broth when cooking kidney beans. It makes delicious minestrone soup.

Last fall I wrote about being a vegetable freak and learning to love winter vegetables. I’m happy to say that the love affair has gone quite well all winter long, and we’ve almost completely replaced arugula and lettuce by carrots, parsnip, cabbage and celery.

There’s nothing like a good cup of tea to keep warm or fight a cold (in the event of which I use the handkerchiefs I sewed last year!). We’ve stopped buying tea bags when we realized that using a infuser was just as good and generated less waste. Last year’s harvest of peppermint and nettles made delicious tea for several months. I hope to harvest enough plants and herbs this year again to make tea all winter long.

Whenever we use the oven, we try to bake several things in a row. We often bake a cake after we’ve made a loaf of bread. If we don’t eat it straight away, we slice it and freeze it so that we always have something ready in case someone turns out for fika.

Our fridge/freezer is old and it’s noisy when it goes off. But since it works ok, we’re reluctant to throw it away and get a newer one. Luckily, we live in a cold climate. Everything we need to freeze cools down (often even freezes) outside before going into the freezer. Whenever it’s below zero, we also rotate a couple of water bottles or ice packs so that there’s always one freezing outside and one in the fridge to help it a little. We might be over-optimistic, but we’re pretty sure it goes off less often when we’re doing this.

Before we finished installing the wood stove, hot water bottles were a must. We simply repurposed empty glass bottles. We still use them whenever it’s really cold. We sleep much better in a cool room, but we’re not (that) crazy either!

As our neighbors recommended, after the big snowfall in January, we piled the snow against the walls of the house. We really noticed a difference in terms of insulation, especially on windy days.

We don’t have a tumble drier. But in the cold season, we don’t miss it at all. When it’s below zero, the air is very dry, and laundry dries quickly. We hang it outside in the sun, or next to the wood stove (keeping fire safety in mind, of course!). Our drying rack is a repurposed metal bed frame.

repurposed headboard drying rack

I’ve learned a lot more about knitting this winter. Thanks to very helpful YouTube videos and my grandma’s detailed explanations, I learned how to make hats, cowls, mittens, and socks. I’m really happy to be able to make these myself.

And, last but not least:pillows-bymarion-text

Making pillow cases from old shirts is really fun. Spring or not spring, I’m looking for more fabric to practice. If you have old shirts you don’t use, email me! I’ll be happy to make you a pillow case.

Finally, I must say that everything on this list felt much more like a satisfying change of perspective than like a painful sacrifice.

Now for frugal spring plans: we will take advantage of sunnier and warmer days to complete our pallet furniture projects, and prepare our first vegetable garden around our tiny red house.

How about you? What new frugal habits did you form this winter? What frugal plans do you have for spring?


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What Pallets Will Become

rusty old nails

pallet

When (while wasting time surfing the web — ahem) I discovered the world of pallet furniture (so, then it wasn’t really a waste of time, was it?), I sworn that when I would have a little red house in the North, I would give it a try. In the meantime, we found an abandoned pallet next to our building and carried it up to our apartment. We installed it against the wall in the hall were it served quite honorably as a shoe rack for two years.

disassembled pallets

One day last December we drove home to our little red house from my brother’s place, the car crammed with pallets he had rescued from the trash and saved for us. They’ve remained stacked in a corner since then, waiting for us to find time to disassemble them. And now this time has come.

pallets03

There’s so many things we want to build with this wood. Bookshelves, definitely: our temporary cardboard boxes pileup is really collapsing now. Shoe racks would also be nice. And boxes for all the woolly winter hats, scarves and mittens. Desks. We’ve been dreaming of desks for so long. Desks on which whatever we’re working on can stay there when we’re having diner — luxury! A lid for the compost bin. Shelves for the bathroom. Sliding doors. Wooden walls. We’re not lacking inspiration. Now where to start?

pallets01


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On Being Creative And Putting More Wood On The Fire

window

Earlier this month we came back from Southern France to find our water pipes intact despite a week of bitter cold temperatures. I would be lying if I said that the issue of frozen pipes didn’t worry me a little while we were away, but as I now know, our electric heaters, set to the minimum, actually can do the job of keeping the plumbing frost-free. So next time, I’ll be absolutely serene.

When we decided to buy our little red house, we knew that spending our days working from home in the heart of Scandinavian winter relying on electric heaters only was out of the question. As we pondered the different wood stove options, our friends strongly recommended going for a programmable pellet stove. “It’s very convenient”, they insisted, “because you can tune it so that the house is warm when you get home, and not worry about it.”

It is indeed. Yet at the time we were less concerned by tunable thermostats than by finding a stove we could cook on. In such a climate, we argued, that would be a serious asset in the event of a power shortage. The argument was granted.

In reality, we were looking beyond these exceptional cases. We actually planned to cook on our wood stove on a daily basis, at least during the months when heating was needed in the house. I understand that coming from people like us, who’d always been living in cities, heating their apartments with electric heaters and cooking on electric stoves, the idea can have sounded like another crazy let’s-go-live-into-the-woods nonsenses.

Our friends, who’d made the big city-woods move before us, were more concerned about time management. Living frugally, they said, shouldn’t be taking all your time, and making green choices should not impinge upon creativity. “How will you manage to get things done”, they asked, “if, every hour, you have to put more wood on the fire?”

As someone who’s very attached to the idea of making room for thought, creativity or introspection in everyone’s schedule, I do get the point. But, just as I wrote in my post about cooking dried beans, I think we shouldn’t systematically take for granted the idea that freedom and creativity are always to be found in technologies and social structures that supposedly liberate us from the trivial necessities of domestic chores, the latter being the source of all slavery and alienation.

Of course I’ll willingly admit that when you get up early every day, drive to your job in the dark, spend the day with your annoying colleagues before driving back home in the dark, adding to this snow-shoveling, windshield-defrosting, grocery-bags-carrying-on-icy-parking-lots and other Scandinavian winter delights, you do need a warm house to get home to. Period. No going back and forth to the wood pile and waiting to the stove to heat up. I get that.

That is actually my point. For most of us, “liberating technologies” are not magic. They come with a cost: the financial dependence on a nine-to-five job. It was also the case for me. So last year, when my contract at the university ended, I decided that instead of looking for another unfulfilling (for me) academic job, and being unhappy, I’d rather spend time living frugally while figuring things out.

Spending a chilly but happy spring in our friends’ summerhouse, in which the old wood stove served both as heater, cooker, and water boiler – a versatility whose merits struck me as pretty obvious – gave me time to find a new routine, doing things I find more meaningful and setting up my own little business.

Now I’m working from home, by the wood stove. It turns out that a programmable pellet stove was way out of our budget. So, we went for a classic cast-iron one. So far, remembering the gloom of coming home to apartments lacking a fireplace after spending Christmas at my parents’, having to put wood on the fire every hour or so still feels much more like a luxury than like a burden.

Sure, when I’m not there, my house is cold. It is also cold when I get up in the morning. But then I have time to seat and read by the stove while the room heats up, gathering inspiration for the day’s work while the water is boiling for tea. And I really, really like it so.

On cooking dried beans and driving to work everyday

dried red beans

It gave me a chock when, a couple of years ago, I started calculating how much it cost me to be working full time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not greedy. As far as I can remember, I’ve never dreamed of making a lot of money. I have dreamed, however, of doing a job that made me happy. Around the time my academic-physicist happiness started fading away at the speed of light, I found myself doing this kind of petty cost calculation:

Take beans. Perhaps I should mention here that I eat very little meat. Being, as you may know, a vegetable freak, I’m happy with eating only organic meat from time to time. I also eat moose whenever one of my neighbors kills one, but most of the time I eat cereal and beans for protein, feeling very self-satisfied about my reduced grocery budget and my efforts to save the environment.

So, beans. It obviously takes ages to cook them. I’m not even speaking about those times when you forget to put them to soak overnight. Luckily for people who work full time, you can buy them cooked and canned. If you’re happy with your job, then, everything is fine. As for me, I kept repeating that I would quit if I could, so I calculated on.

A kilogram of lead and a kilogram of feathers certainly weight the same, but they don’t cost the same. I’ll spare you the math, but dried beans, including the water and energy to cook them, are still much, much cheaper than canned ones. They also come with less packaging, and you can even control how much salt or what spices and herbs you put in. In fact, you can prepare them exactly the way you want them.

And I started asking myself: isn’t it funny that we’re so prone to consider spending two hours cooking dried beans a waste of time, while we never question the fact that it’s also the time it takes us to drive to and from work everyday?

on an unexpected yard sale and building a chimney

achievement-bymarion

When we moved into our tiny red house, we brought with us a toolkit containing one screwdriver, one hammer, one set of pliers, and that’s about it. While this had been quite enough to tackle any home improvement we had been facing in rental apartments where hanging a picture on a wall was taking the risk of loosing a substantial security, it soon appeared to be slightly too little in this new situation.

One day as we cycled through the neighboring village, we saw a sign saying “yard sale” in front of a beautiful old house, and stopped to have a look. We found nice little glass jars for our kitchen, and were about to leave when I asked the lady who lived there if, by any chance, she didn’t have any tools for sale. It turned out that she did. Her husband opened the garage for us to see if there was anything we would find to our taste. He explained that he and his wife were moving into a small apartment and that everything we saw was for sale.

As we were unable to know what to buy, we told him a price and asked what we could get for this. While we went to withdraw some cash, he put together three big toolboxes for us.

Long story short, we had never used a jigsaw before. And now we’ve installed a chimney and a wood stove.

It must have been heartbreaking for this couple to leave a house like theirs, and all these things, a whole life, behind. I hope we will bump into them again, so we can thank them once more, and tell them about this little achievement. For we can tell, now, how generous this man has been. There was everything, everything we needed in these toolboxes.

on not buying stuff and hot water bottles

hot-water-bottle-bymarion

Soon (hopefully), our little house will have a brand new wood stove. While we’re longing for a crakling fire, our stay-warm strategy is all about fine-tuning the electric heaters so as 1) not to freeze and 2) not to get a heart attack when receiving electricity bills.

A while ago, as I was getting ready to go to bed after a cold and white day, I found myself dreaming of a nice hot water bottle.

The next day, I did some research to find out what a hot water bottle is called in this country, and then where to buy one. The pharmacy. That is, at least, a one hour drive.

Luckily, as Gregg points out in this brilliant post, “most often the best alternative is to not buy anything”.

And, after all, a hot water bottle is not much more than a bottle of hot water, is it? I just love it, really, when that happens.

on roasting beetroot and gaining perspective (part 2)

vegetables2

A vegetable freak’s story, continued. If you’ve missed part 1, here it is. Enjoy!

My studies completed, I moved to Scandinavia and my lettuce addiction unexpectedly jumped up at me. Lettuce was so obvious that I didn’t even need it on my shopping list. My very diet-conscious parents have always kept my plate green, and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. So, I am one these annoying persons who can’t imagine pizza without lettuce. Or bread and cheese without lettuce. Or a sandwich without lettuce.

No, I am not ashamed to admit that I am a lettuce freak. Do you hear me, waiter? Don’t ever take my plate away before I have delightedly munched the ornamental lettuce leave. I HAVE NOT FINISHED!

Yes. That’s how bad it is. But I digress.

In my local scandinavian supermarket, lettuce came heavily wrapped in plastic. Option one: tiny lettuce hearts, ridiculously expensive. Option two: somewhat cheaper iceberg lettuce, local in the summer, otherwise from Spain. With the shameful purpose of getting my money’s worth of the vital greenness, I usually went for the later. Admittedly, overlooking two more layers of plastic, I spiced it up with a bit of arugula.

All this plastic gave me a guilty conscience. I loved it up north, but oh, how I missed that Breton farmer’s market! I subscribed to a vegetable delivery system whose website advertised beautiful, fresh, organic vegetables in returnable wooden boxes. It turned out that as far as the absence of plastic was concerned, the photos were, er, non-contractual. But that’s another story.

Half of the year, pretty much every week, there was a head of cabbage in the delivery. We were only halfway through last week’s, and the next one was already there. Cabbage was piling up in the fridge. My partner and I looked at each other in distress. Throwing food away was out of the question, but how on earth were we gonna get done with all this cabbage? It took us a few months to stop buying lettuce and start making coleslaw.

I realize now that for us who grew up in lands where lettuce can grow pretty much all year long, but also in a system where tomatoes can be found in the stores even when it’s snowing outside, winter vegetables were not much more than a necessary evil. Something you had instead. Something you ate because it was healthy, not tasty. That’s how my friend felt about broccoli. In our habits, in our culture, broccoli, like beetroot, had to be boiled. Cabbage had to be simmered for hours until all crispness was thoroughly destroyed. Crispness was to be found in lettuce – period.

Last saturday, we drove the 10 kilometers to the nearest grocery store, and came back happily with a huge head of local, organic cabbage. We feasted on a pile of roasted beetroot with goat’s cheese and rosemary. I suddenly realized that living here up north, and living frugally, I have trained my taste buds a little more. I don’t even look at this watery, tasteless iceberg lettuce in the store anymore. I rush straight at fresh, crispy local cabbage and juicy carrots. It is cripsness I want, not lettuce.

There is still – and always will be – a bottle of olive oil on the countertop. There is a slightly exaggerated supply of canned tomatoes in the cupboards. There are regular care packages with rosemary and thyme from my parents Provençal garden. You cannot just ditch your roots, can you? But as far as root vegetables are concerned, they should be roasted, damn it, not over boiled.

Over a delicious plate of roast beetroot, listening to the snow storm outside, I thought: there is no instead anymore.

———

PS: Photo of this fall’s farmer’s market goodness stolen, again, from a certain brother of mine.

on roasting beetroot and gaining perspective (part 1)

farmer's market vegetable

I remember the horrified look on a friend’s face when I opened my lunchbox one day to reveal an innocent bunch of broccoli florets. He almost choked. “You’re putting broccoli in your salad?” Undeniably, to some of my friends, I am a vegetable freak.

It is indeed quite hard for me to cite a single vegetable I wouldn’t eat. There are some however that until recently, I just wouldn’t have rushed at when shopping by myself. Beetroot is one of them, poor beetroot! It’s not that I didn’t like it, but I definitely preferred all things mediterranean.

Both my parents are from Provence, and though I didn’t grow up there, I most certainly grew up delighting in platefuls of ratatouille and all kinds of greens sprinkled with thyme, topped with fresh basil, soaking in olive oil or in tomato sauce.

So, naturally, when I left home and started taking care of my own food, tomatoes were on top of my shopping list, year-round. I willingly accepted the idea that it is better to eat seasonal food. I did my best, but tomatoes were the cornerstone of my diet and I had simply never thought of doing without them.

I soon discovered that the lovely Breton city I had settled in as a student had a fantastic farmer’s market I could easily walk to every saturday morning. In the summer months, I would find organic tomatoes that had nothing, nothing in common with their supermarket counterparts. I stopped buying – in fact I even stopped wanting – tomatoes in the winter.

Great, I thought, I’ve reached that step: I’m eating local, seasonal food, and I don’t even feel deprived. I’d rather not eat tomatoes than eating this watery, tasteless shit. If I want color on my plate, I’ll have beetroot instead.

That’s my point. Not beetroot. Beetroot instead. I had certainly taken a step forward but as I was about to realize, there was still some way to go.

to be continued…

———

PS: Photo of this fall’s farmer’s market goodness stolen from a certain brother of mine.

on neighbors and apple cake

apples-small

My neighbor is almost 90 and we don’t speak the same language. In his garden, he has a beautiful apple tree.

When I first moved to Scandinavia, I landed in a big city. I rarely stammered anything in my new language because all my neighbors spoke English very well. In my green, tidy, fancy neighborhood, every garden had its own beautiful apple tree.

The apples, though, remained largely unpicked. They fell, and rotted. Sometimes, a few remained on the trees after the snow came, dressing them with red dots, looking like Christmas bulbs. It was beautiful, and stupid.

This fall, just a few days after I ended up in this tiny village here up north, my 90 years old neighbor, who doesn’t speak English, told me that he had too many apples and that I could pick as many as I wanted from his tree.

I stammered, in my new language: thank you, thank you so much, that is so nice of you.

I’ve spoken different languages and lived in neighborhoods with apple trees before, but this, you see, had never happened to me.

———————–

The apple cake of good neighbors

Ingredients

3 dL flour
2 dL sugar
1 ts baking soda
1 dL sour milk or yoghurt
2 eggs
1/2 dL neutral vegetable oil (I use peanut oil)
1 pinch of vanilla sugar

2-3 of the neighbor’s apples. (If your neighbor happens to have a plum tree instead, grab a bunch of plums. It’s delicious too)

Instructions

Mix all dry ingredients together. Add liquids/eggs and mix well. Pour in a buttered pan. Slice the fruits and arrange them on top of the batter. Place in a warm oven (200°C). Bake until the top is golden (about half an hour). Lower the oven temperature to 150°C and continue baking for another half hour or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean.